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The Marine Corps' F-35B is practicing in Nevada for future combat

For the first time ever, Marine Corps aviators will fly their short-takeoff and vertical landing version of the F-35 Lightning II in one of the world's most intense aerial combat training exercises, the Red Flag Exercise in Nevada.


The F-35Bs will be focusing on flight safety and how to best employ the plane's current suite of weapons and tools and will not seek to engage targets within visual range, 2nd Lt. Casey Littesy, a 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing spokesperson, told the Marine Corps Times.

A US Marine Corps F-35B conducts a short take-off and vertical landing exercise in Oct. 2013. Photo: US Air Force Samuel King

All friendly fighters in the exercise go up against American jets and surface-to-air missiles tweaked to provide realistic training that simulates a war with a near-peer rival such as Russia or China. These advanced threats from rival nations are the exact adversaries that the F-35 — and its sibling, the F-22 Raptor — were designed to fly against.

A hot debate rages over whether the F-35s will work as advertised against advanced fighters, like Russia's PAK FA, China's J-20 and ground threats like the S-400 and HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems. Red Flag — which runs from July 11-29 — represents one of the Corps' best chances to see how the F-35B can play in airspace that an enemy is trying to control or take.

Red Flag trainers have even begun folding cyber attacks into the exercise, meaning F-35B pilots will have to deal with attacks on their network. But this could actually be a prime area for the F-35 to shine.

The F-35 can connect to most any friendly force on the battlefield, feeding information from its sensors to friendlies and grabbing information from other planes and sensors. (Graphic: Lockheed Martin)

The Lightning II is outfitted with top-tier sensors, advanced software that sorts and compiles information and network capabilities that allow it to connect to other combatants. That means the F-35B may be able to ferry information for others when the battlefield network is attacked.

This isn't the first time the Marines have taken the F-35B out of the stable and put it through its paces. The plane has been folded into the Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructors course, an intense school for elite pilots that tests the F-35B and its operators.

During a recent test, 30 F-35Bs ran an exercise against 24 aggressor aircraft. Legacy aircraft that have attempted the test suffered losses of between 33 and 50 percent of their aircraft, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis said during Congressional testimony on July 6. The F-35B chewed through the enemy instead, killing all 24 without suffering a single loss.

Detractors of the program believe that these battlefield exercises are either stacked in the F-35's favor or that the results were tweaked or outright fabricated. The debate will likely continue until the Lightning II is first sent to war. Until then, it's the Marine Corps' job to make sure F-35B aviators are ready for that call.

(h/t Marine Corps Times)